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The (Re) Birth of Vodka- Is It Possible?


weinoo
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The backlash against vodka reminds me of the similar and, IMHO, equally misguided, culinary backlash against white sugar/salt/water in favor of honey/soy sauce/stock. Sure, the second set has more "flavor" and "complexity" and I'm always going to reach for them when appropriate.

But it's absurd to say that white sugar has no place in a pastry kitchen and that vodka has no place in a bar. Sometimes, you want that neutrality precisely because it's neutral. It boosts without being assertive.

To me, the difference is that sugar adds sweetness, and salt adds saltiness, whereas vodka adds nothing but alcohol. But then, I'm the type of guy who would never deliberately choose to use water in place of stock.

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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But it's absurd to say that white sugar has no place in a pastry kitchen and that vodka has no place in a bar. Sometimes, you want that neutrality precisely because it's neutral. It boosts without being assertive.

I don't think anyone is arguing that vodka has no place in the cocktailan bar, or that there are no situations in which it can work. I just think that most of us are arguing that it has at most a very minor role to play in the cocktailian bar, which is entirely at odds with the situation we see today where most bars beyond a select few are dominated by vodka both in the drinks served and on the back bar.

A perfect example of a good drink where vodka's neutrality works would be Audrey's Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini where extremely concentrated and potent Islay single malt scotch is stretched by a large measure of vodka, which allows the imbiber to have a lighter/colder drink and also reveals many interesting components of the malt that are obscured at full strength. Another good example is Paul Harrington's Drink Without a Name wherein vodka is combined with tiny measures of Cointreau and Green Chartreuse to a similar effect.

Other than stretching (which is another way of saying "reducing intensity") of very strong flavored spirits, I'm not sure that there is a great deal of value in vodka's ability to "boost without being assertive." You take some orange juice and you add vodka, what do you have? Well, now you have alcoholic orange juice that doesn't taste quite as good as non-alcoholic orange juice. What's the difference? The alcoholic version will get you drunk. The fact is that, for the vast majority of vodka cocktails, if you replaced the vodka with chilled water or seltzer, the drink would taste better. Sure, I get it -- sometimes you want to drink spiced tomato juice and get your drunk on. We've all been there. But, you know... we've all been to McDonald's as well. The Bloody Mary is just alcoholic tomato juice, whereas the Red Snapper is a drink.

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Finally, for most, although not all flavored vodkas, you can make infused spirits yourself that are every bit as good in the context of a cocktail.  Or, if you want more background complexity, infuse some gin instead.  I'd much rather have a cocktail made with celery peppercorn gin or kaffir lime leaf aquavit than the same flavors infused into vodka.

Sometimes vodka can be the gateway to getting someone to expand their horizons. While it is my last choice of spirit to use, 70% of the people ordering spirits in my restaurant are ordering vodka (if they haven't been in before). I don't stock cranberry, so if someone wants a cosmopolitan and isn't ready to try something with gin, maybe I'll recommend something with an infused vodka. I don't really mind having a few vodka drinks on the list (most are house infusions) because chances are they'll try something a bit more complex than a jolly rancher and probably enjoy it. And after they have a bit of confidece in the bartender's ability to help guide them through a drink or two, they'll be more likely to go a step further and try something made with a different spirit. I've seen this work time and time again. While we still sell more vodka overall, our most popular cocktail is gin based.

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Ignorance isn't bliss, its a vodka tonic. Look I remember being a vodka drinker, thats right laugh it up. In my day in Pittsburgh I put me back some Stoli Tonics, Why? To get drunk, and why Vodka Tonics well because Vodka is what one drank to get drunk. It didn't taste like any thing I got drunk without bothering to think, taste, or enjoy. Now knowing what I know now I can't stand the thought of drinking something as mindless as a vodka tonic. Evangelize indeed. It is my job as a proffesional to help people drink better. If people didn't want to drink better I wouldn't own a bar or have a career behind one. I feel like I discovered some secret IE cocktails and spirits that I want to share with people. Vodka is a crutch. If you have it people will fall back on it. If you don't they will learn to walk and drink something else.

An aquired taste is a just reward for an effort put forth. Most people don't just wake up and decide to love Laphroiag one day. It is a pleasure that has to be earned. Campari drinkers think of your first time, it took me forever to learn to like it but boy am I glad my dedication paid off. Vodka is simplicity to the point of mundane. Mindless.

The number of times I've walked into a bar or restruant and looked at the booze selection and saw the same 12 bottles of vodka and maybe say 10 other bottles of over marketed over priced liquid habits in a bottle that people drink because no one has ever taken the time to open there eyes to not just taste but value: that is my inspiration.

Worst of all liquor companies can't leave well enough alone. Know we have Gins, Rums, and Tequilas made and marketed to vodka drinkers: Tasted any of some of those new fangled gins or how about some flavored Tequila. We are dumbing down the finest spirits in the world to cater to the worst pallets. Bulldog gin costs more than Beefeater how is that possible? If I never hear the word smooth again I'm not going to complain.

Funny story. About 2nd night of freinds and family at my new establishment. Friends of friends of friends wind up getting in. I hand them a cocktail menu, a girl who seemed perhaps almost in the bag asks for a double vodka and tonic without even looking at the menu. I tell here I don't carry Vodka or tonic, and also that I don't serve doubles. She is none to happy, she snaps and asks me how someone can't have vodka. No lie I didn't like her very much, so I told her that we specialized in things that taste like something and since vodka didn't tast like something we didn't carry it. She asked me how I could be so presumptious to make a judgement like that. She wound up ordering a mojito(another no brainer) and I only thought of my reply after I was already downstairs and kept it to myself. It was: I had come to that conclusion by tasting hundreds of spirits over the past six years and how was it that she had come to hers?

Ignorance isn't bliss its a Vodka tonic. Vodka is perhaps the pioneer of todays Liquir/Marketing scheme. Its in fact brilliant. Seen as how it doesn't taste like anything the only thing poor folks can "rate" it on is price/image. And born was the expensive equals better craze.(can anyone else her Violent Femmes in the background) We could start a whole new thread on this topic so I will move on, just wanted to note that I believe vodka to be the biggest culprit.

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Ignorance isn't bliss, its a vodka tonic. Look I remember being a vodka drinker, thats right laugh it up. In my day in Pittsburgh I put me back some Stoli Tonics, Why? To get drunk, and why Vodka Tonics well because Vodka is what one drank to get drunk. It didn't taste like any thing I got drunk without bothering to think, taste, or enjoy. Now knowing what I know now I can't stand the thought of drinking something as mindless as a vodka tonic. Evangelize indeed. It is my job as a proffesional to help people drink better. If people didn't want to drink better I wouldn't own a bar or have a career behind one. I feel like I discovered some secret IE cocktails and spirits that I want to share with people. Vodka is a crutch. If you have it people will fall back on it. If you don't they will learn to walk and drink something else.

An aquired taste is a just reward for an effort put forth. Most people don't just wake up and decide to love Laphroiag one day. It is a pleasure that has to be earned. Campari drinkers think of your first time, it took me forever to learn to like it but boy am I glad my dedication paid off. Vodka is simplicity to the point of mundane. Mindless.

The number of times I've walked into a bar or restruant and looked at the booze selection and saw the same 12 bottles of vodka and maybe say 10 other bottles of over marketed over priced liquid habits in a bottle that people drink because no one has ever taken the time to open there eyes to not just taste but value: that is my inspiration.

Worst of all liquor companies can't leave well enough alone. Know we have Gins, Rums, and Tequilas made and marketed to vodka drinkers: Tasted any of some of those new fangled gins or how about some flavored Tequila. We are dumbing down the finest spirits in the world to cater to the worst pallets. Bulldog gin costs more than Beefeater how is that possible? If I never hear the word smooth again I'm not going to complain.

Funny story. About 2nd night of freinds and family at my new establishment. Friends of friends of friends wind up getting in. I hand them a cocktail menu, a girl who seemed perhaps almost in the bag asks for a double vodka and tonic without even looking at the menu. I tell here I don't carry Vodka or tonic, and also that I don't serve doubles. She is none to happy, she snaps and asks me how someone can't have vodka. No lie I didn't like her very much, so I told her that we specialized in things that taste like something and since vodka didn't tast like something we didn't carry it. She asked me how I could be so presumptious to make a judgement like that. She wound up ordering a mojito(another no brainer) and I only thought of my reply after I was already downstairs and kept it to myself. It was: I had come to that conclusion by tasting hundreds of spirits over the past six years and how was it that she had come to hers?

Ignorance isn't bliss its a Vodka tonic. Vodka is perhaps the pioneer of todays Liquir/Marketing scheme. Its in fact brilliant. Seen as how it doesn't taste like anything the only thing poor folks can "rate" it on is price/image. And born was the expensive equals better craze.(can anyone else her Violent Femmes in the background) We could start a whole new thread on this topic so I will move on, just wanted to note that I believe vodka to be the biggest culprit.

I agree with everything Phil says here (big surprise).

But I want to note again a tension between various strands of the Serious Cocktail Movement. I believe (and it appears Phil believes) that Serious Cocktail Bars are like restaurants, and that you appreciate Serious Cocktails the same way you appreciate food. And that Serious Cocktail Bars should relate to their patrons the way restaurants relate to theirs.

Sam would say that they're also social centers, and have a whole other set of obligations on top of that (which arguably include not being snotty to people who order vodka drinks). I understand that bars and restaurants are in the hospitality business, and that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and that it's arguably almost never justifiable to be snotty to a customer. But why should someone ordering a Double Vodka Tonic at Phil's bar be treated any better than someone ordering a burger with ketchup at Masa would be?

(And of course it pisses me off even more when people like that are making it impossible for me to get into these places.)

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But why should someone ordering a Double Vodka Tonic at Phil's bar be treated any better than someone ordering a burger with ketchup at Masa would be?

This is not a particularly apt comparison, because Masa doesn't have the means to make a burger with ketchup. The normal restaurant comparison isn't a great one in general, because restaurants serve from a menu and there isn't a lot of custom plate-making (and plenty of restaurants have a "no substitutions" policy).

The sushi bar comparison, however, is an interesting one. Asking for a vodka soda at a fancy cocktail bar might be like sitting at the bar at Sushi Yasuda and asking for an "inside out California roll." Most likely, Yasuda would just go ahead and make you one. If not, he might suggest that he doesn't have the traditional ingredients, but could make something similar using real crab leg meat, etc. Meanwhile, I doubt very much that Yasuda would treat you like a rube. So, there's the answer to your hypothetical: you would be treated nicely and be given what you ordered. I'm not familiar enough with Masa's system (isn't it all omakase?) but have my doubts as to whether even Masa would treat someone ordering a California Roll with disdain.

If you have a place that's popular enough that you can continue to do big business even if you develop a reputation for being deliberately rude to people who ask for vodka, more power to you. Certainly the reputation of having a rude maitre d' hasn't hurt Babbo's business any.

Meanwhile, I think that Mayahuel, because it is a tequila-focused cocktail bar, has a good reason for not having any vodka compared to most "general purpose" cocktail bars. Really, the reason to go to Mayahuel should be because you want to have tequila cocktails. Asking for a vodka soda at Mayahuel is, I suppose, a bit like asking for a burger at Jean-Georges. The waiter at Jean-Groege would likely tell you "no," but would do it in a pretty nice way. Knowing Phil's lighthearted ways and easy familiarity with customers, I'm quite sure that he offered his thoughts on the double-vodka order in a way that would not offend.

(And of course it pisses me off even more when people like that are making it impossible for me to get into these places.)

The sad reality is that the majority of the people who go into any bar, do so for motivations and reasons other than the quality and inventiveness of the cocktails (even if they might like to be in a place known for these things). I'm quite sure that for every customer bellying up to Jerry Thomases bar in search of the greatest cocktails of the age, there were at least a dozen who were there because of the scene or to get a buzz on.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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1. Actually Yasuda (or his staff) will quite readily refuse to accomodate a customer. I've witnessed it more than once.

2. They will definitely make you a burger at Jean Georges if you really want one.

Yasuda and JG have very different conceptions of service. Neither is wrong. Phil can get away with the Yasuda approach in NY (rightfully). I doubt he could in say Austin. Your compromises will be dictated by the nature of your clientele. Pegu or Flatiron have to be more accomodating to the rubes than say PDT because they need far more customers.

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What about Wylie (otherwise the nicest guy in the world)?  I can't see him making, say, a plain grilled steak because someone asks for it.

Again, a restaurant with a set menu is not a good example. It is not standard practice to come into a restaurant, never mind a restaurant such as wd-50, and say, "I'll have a such-and-such."

If one wanted to have a bar like that, it could be possible. Simply make it known that the bar is offering what is on the menu and nothing else.

Phil can get away with the Yasuda approach in NY (rightfully). I doubt he could in say Austin.

I will say that I think there is a big difference between telling a customer that you can't make a Vodka Soda because you don't have any vodka (which is what Phil did), and telling a customer that you can't make a Vodka Soda because it's a crap drink for rubes. Presumably, the bartenders at Mayahuel wouldn't refuse to make any drink ordered that they could make using the ingredients they had on hand.

I think that the best stragegy is exactly the one Phil is using: don't like vodka? don't like vodka drinks? don't want to serve vodka drinks? that's not what you're all about? Then don't stock vodka. Problem solved. :smile: It's made all the easier because Mayahuel is a tequila-focused bar.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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How about this analogy. I don't go to the cherry tavern and ask for a Sazerac, I'm aware of my suroundings, shouldn't everyone be? Also if you are a vodka drinker and enter a place that doesn't carry vodka and you only find out once your there it is that establishments choice for a reason. They have two easy choices take an interest and find out why or go to any other bar anywhere and order your vodka drink. It must be said that it is a two way street between bartenders being professional and consumers being polite and I must say the rudest customers nominated by spirit of choice are vodka drinkers. To them Bartenders are not well trained proffesionals but just unskilled drink deliverers at there beck and call.

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So at this point, the discussion really started to veer, and the moderators decided to split off the discussion about serious cocktail bars in New York City into a new topic which may be found by clicking here.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I will say that I think there is a big difference between telling a customer that you can't make a Vodka Soda because you don't have any vodka (which is what Phil did), and telling a customer that you can't make a Vodka Soda because it's a crap drink for rubes.  Presumably, the bartenders at Mayahuel wouldn't refuse to make any drink ordered that they could make using the ingredients they had on hand.

I think that the best stragegy is exactly the one Phil is using:  don't like vodka?  don't like vodka drinks?  don't want to serve vodka drinks?  that's not what you're all about?  Then don't stock vodka.  Problem solved. :smile:  It's made all the easier because Mayahuel is a tequila-focused bar.

There's a serious cocktail bar here in Atlanta that has featured a drink on their list called The Uninspired Drinker, that is vodka, soda and if you're feeling adventerous a lemon or lime.

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